San Juan, Puerto Rico Adventures

24 Jul

Another weekend found me traveling for a wedding of Danielle’s friend, and you know I made sure there was some beer involved. I had never been to Puerto Rico before. Danielle had been once, so she had a little bit of local knowledge. To make sure I was properly versed in their beer scene, I did some Google-fu and came across Puerto Rico Beer Guide. It offered a wealth of information, and I contribute much of my San Juan beer map to their extensive map. With a good feel for beer to be found on my vacation, I was prepared to go.

I arrived into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport before Danielle and had some time to kill. Like any good traveller, I spent that time at an airport bar and subsequently had my first Puerto Rican beers. Medalla Light was your standard island light lager: easy to drink in the sun and in the heat but not offering much in the way of flavor or complexity. It was by far the easiest beer to be found in Puerto Rico, leading me to drink quite a few of them during our trip. From what I could find, Compañía Cervecera de Puerto Rico, the makers of Medalla Light, are Puerto Rican owned and appear to be independent. I could not determine if they were considered craft or not. What I did determine was that drinking and eating at San Juan’s airport is not a fiscally wise choice: my 2 beers and mediocre chicken quesadilla was $40!?! Eventually Danielle arrived and saved me from draining my wallet.

We stayed in Old San Juan at an amazingly cute Airbnb. It was perfectly located and set up for two couples, and it was also much cheaper than local hotel options. The balcony provided views of Old San Juan, and it is where I enjoyed my first good beer of the trip.

No matter where I am in the world, I will never complain about having a Two Hearted. The local supermarket had Bell’s along with a decent selection of other American craft beer. I drank some Two Hearted while catching up with friends on the balcony, and eventually dinner time had arrived. We were meeting up with the wedding couple, family, and friends at Barrachina. As I quickly found out, this was the birthplace of the piña colada, first created by a bartender in 1963. Since I am not a fool, I polished off a couple of the piñas, and they were quite tasty. I also tried another one of Compañía Cervecera de Puerto Rico’s offerings, Magna Premium Lager. As is the case with probably all beers calling themselves “Premium”, it was an uninspiring lager. My meal was the grouper fillet, and it did not disappoint. Dessert and post-dinner drinks were at Carli’s, a jazz bar nearby. Despite sitting outside and only hearing a little of the music coming from within the restaurant, the atmosphere was relaxing, and the cool breeze had taken place of the scorching sun to make for a pleasant evening outdoors. Late night festivities included balcony drinking and a heated game of Presidents and Assholes that raised some emotions and required some calming words to de-escalate the situation. And more drinking. Alcohol solves all problems. Eventually the long day of boozing caught up to us, sending us to our respective beds for the night.

Sunday was for exploration around Old San Juan. We began by fueling up at Cuatro Sombras. Although I am not a coffee drinker, the group agreed that they had very good locally made coffee. I had a ham, cheese, and tomato jelly croissant sandwich, and like everyone else’s food it was very good. From our breakfast spot we began walking around Old San Juan. At the suggestion of our Airbnb host, we walked down to the seashore on the north side of the peninsula. The neighborhood hugging the coast is La Perla, and most guide books would recommend that you not visit the area for safety concerns. It is set up as a shanty town with lots of houses built close together and on top of each other. On Sunday morning, it was very dead, and some other tourists were seen walking around. While I would be a little hesitant to go there at night, it was perfectly normal and safe when we walked through. The ocean views were amazing, and the colorful houses made for a picturesque scene despite the lower standard of living compared to the rest of Old San Juan.

Naturally Danielle and I had to take an ocean view selfie.

We eventually walked back inside the city walls and made our way to the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. It was built in the 1860’s and is the resting place of many famous Puerto Ricans. Its imposing high walls and intricate gravestones were beautifully crafted, and one could almost feel a palpable history while walking around the grounds. After working up a considerable sweat and thirst in the hot and humid conditions, cold refreshment was calling our names. We made our way to Cinema Bar where we proceeded to taste 7 different versions of mojito amongst our group. My personal favorite was the coconut, and there was also high praise for the strawberry. We munched on fried calamari and chicken chicharrones, both of which hit the spot.

The Castillo San Felipe del Morro was the next stop on our walking tour of Old San Juan. The Spanish colonial fort was built in the late 1500’s to defend San Juan Bay. Over the next 400 years the fort was expanded to keep up with new military technologies, and the US even added a submarine detection station during WWII. With majestic views aplenty, we walked around the fort’s various levels and soaked up the history. We even took some time to be super mature.

Having gotten our fill of historical culture for the day, we set our sights on booze culture. Visiting the Bacardi rum factory required a ferry ride across the bay and a shuttle to Casa Bacardi. We were greeted by beautifully manicured grounds and an attractive art deco structure which housed the bar. I had to start off with the classic mojito.

The bartender took his time to expertly craft the cocktail, and it was certainly one of the better examples I’ve ever had. I was impressed that they weren’t just putting out drinks as fast as possible. A tour of the complex and Bacardi’s rum making process was next. While it was interesting to hear about Bacardi’s history and how they made rum, I would have liked to see more of the actual factory and the equipment that makes the magic. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by all the brewery tours I’ve been on. Post-tour drinks were had, and our group began the trek back to Old San Juan upon finishing up.

Dinner was at La Cueva Del Mar, and our late arrival dictated that we sit at the bar away from the wedding party. Our bar seating did insure that the drinks kept flowing, and Danielle made sure our margarita glasses remained full of the refreshing spirit. We had a couple rounds of empanadas A) because they were delicious and B) because our entrees took well over an hour to come out. I’ll chalk that up to the restaurant being slammed, and the waiters were apologetic about the wait. I had the fresh catch of the day. While it was good, it was not worth the wait. Thankfully the margs kept our group occupied and minimized our fussiness.

Late night drinking time had arrived, and I directed the group towards La Taberna Lupulo, widely considered to be Puerto Rico’s best beer bar. Their lineup did not disappoint. I had Stone Ghost Hammer IPA, Victory Storm King, and Boulevard Saison Brett.  These beers weren’t mind blowing by American beer bar standards, but it was a nice change of pace from the pervasive Medalla and other light lagers. There was also a band playing at the bar, and it was a very lively atmosphere. If I lived in San Juan, I would definitely become a regular there. After our beers we called it a night and headed home.

Monday was our sole trip outside San Juan during our stay. The entire wedding party was taking a bus to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the US national forest system. Before boarding, we grabbed breakfast from Cafeteria Mallorca. It was a very cute breakfast bakery a block from our Airbnb. We had been previously tempted by the pastries visible through their window, and it came recommended by our Airbnb host. Their namesake food is the mallorca, a toasted breakfast sandwich filled with various toppings and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I ordered bacon in mine and received a lot of envious glances when I started eating it on the bus. For anyone visiting Old San Juan, the mallorca is a must-have breakfast food. When we arrived at El Yunque, we briefly checked out the visitor center before beginning our drive up the mountain. El Yunque’s highest peak is almost 3,500 feet above sea level, and we made it up to around 2,100 feet. Along the way we stopped at Yocahu Tower to get panoramic views of the coastline and rainforest.

Quite the majestic view

The group hiked down the La Mina trail and admired the multiple waterfalls along the route. The largest waterfall, Cascada La Mina, has a large and heavily populated swimming hole at its base. I did not bring my swimming suit and was not enthralled with the idea of hiking in wet clothes, so I had to forego any aquatic activities. However, I was told that the water was quite refreshing. After completing our hike, the group reconvened and set off for the coast where everyone else was taking a boat to the island of Culebra. Danielle and I had to return home on Tuesday, so we were headed back to San Juan.

A vacation is not complete without a brewery visit, so we had the driver drop us off at Ocean Lab Brewing Co. It was a very nice facility located at a large entertainment complex. Someone had put some serious money into this endeavor. We were greeted by a friendly ocean explorer who had seemingly found the lost treasure of a bag full of fresh hops. I’m not quite sure how those were found in the ocean, but the proof was right there in front of us.

If Ocean Lab Man can’t do it, nobody can

We took seats at the bar, and I immediately began admiring their equipment. The entire space was very nice and well put together. To start things off, I ordered a flight.

While nothing blew me away, I did really enjoy the Blood Orange Blonde. It managed to avoid being sweet while maintaining a delicious orange flavor. Their Pale Ale 4.0 was pretty solid and had a nice hop character to it. Danielle likewise had a flight, and her beer preferences aligned with mine. Per the bartender’s recommendation, we crushed some tacos as a nice early evening snack. Having finished our flights, we wanted to grab another drink before walking along the ocean to enjoy the sunset. I had a stout and whiskey cocktail. While I can’t remember its name, I do recount it being very tasty and pretty boozy. Not your typical beach drink, but it was also not an average beach view with a storm visible in the distance.

Danielle and I took an Uber back to our Airbnb where proceeded to freshen up and finish off a bottle of rum bought at Bacardi. I flexed my Cuba Libre making skills with these masterpieces.

I haz skillz

It had been at least a couple days before I had eaten pizza, so I had to remedy that situation. Pirilo Pizza Rustica had popped up on my radar because of their respectable beer selection. They also turned out to have some delicious pizza.

Guess which half is mine…

Their Puerto Rican IPA on draft caught my attention. I had heard of F.O.K. Brewing and was excited to try one of their offerings. The FOK 1.5 IPA was a decent beer but perhaps needed a bit more hop flavor. To fulfill my hop craving, I next went for Lagunitas Sucks which is never a bad choice.

For some late night fun we went to La Factoria. It had been recommended by several people as having great cocktails and lively dancing, and it fully lived up to both of those promises. Danielle and I both enjoyed a couple expertly made Old Fashioneds while doing our best to rhythmically move and not spill our drinks. The music was a combination of a live band and salsa appropriate tracks. We admired the salsa dancing skills that were on full display. I did some gyrating white boy interpretation of Latin dancing, and I imagine it was not very pretty to the unfortunate onlookers who saw me. La Factoria definitely made it onto my list of must visit places when in San Juan. With more activities planned for the morning, we headed back to our place for the night.

Our final day in Puerto Rico would require some beach time since we had yet to even put on our swim suits. We set out along the beach in search of a relaxing spot where we could soak up some rays while sipping on some booze. We did not realize that we were in for quite the adventure. For the next 2+ hours we would climb over rocks, avoid the stings of sea urchins and the pincers of crabs, scramble up an abandoned staircase, and then finally find some liquid refreshment.

Only acceptable situation for a Corona

I figured it would be simple for us to wander into the nearby Hilton’s private beach, but that optimistic thought proved futile. Thankfully a kind front desk person told us of a local beach nearby. We walked some more and finally, finally found a nice beach with perfect pineapple skin piña coladas! We had earned those bad boys, and they were made extra strong with some questionable rum poured out of an unmarked plastic bottle. We’re both still alive today, so all was well.

After soaking up probably a little too much sun, we grabbed an Uber back to our Airbnb and began packing up. While packing, we had to finish the rest of the beer and wine we had purchased because it’s wasteful and just plain disrespectful to not drink all the booze. Danielle might have had a full glass or two of wine.

She could have fit more wine in that glass

We made it the airport with a little time to spare, and of course we got suckered into overpriced airport food and drinks. So much for learning my lesson. Despite the questionable financial decision, it had been an amazing vacation. I got to meet new people and see the beginning of a happy marriage. I got to add another country (territory I guess?) to my lifetime travel list. I got to spend quality time with Danielle and her best friend. And I got to beer. Lots of beering and boozing and good food and good times with good people. Until the next Brittski beering, adios!

 

Britt Antley

Britt is a native Texan, lived in Houston for 12 years, and loves his current life in the Big Easy (although his liver is having second thoughts). His liver is also not nearly as proud of his 10,000+ Untappd uniques as he is. Stupid liver. He loves flavorful complex beers from juicy IPAs to fruited sours to barrel aged stouts, and he has vowed to some day be buried with a 4-pack of Yellow Rose.